Characteristics of a Sustainable SMS Program
Sustainability is a modern buzz word, and aviation safety management systems are no exception. Sustainable SMS programs are those that survive upper management changes, safety manager changes, and high volume of employee turnover.
The question every safety manager and/or upper manager needs to ask is, does my SMS program achieve these sustainable goals?
Chances are, the answer is no – not yet. That’s okay. SMS programs are always a work in progress. Implementations are marathons, not sprints. Most safety managers would do thing differently a second time around, in order to build a better (i.e., more sustainable) foundation during implementation.
Some of these initial “sustainability” tips are:
- Sustainable SMS programs rely on the system rather than a person;
- Sustainable programs have a safety champion (who may different than the safety manager);
- Sustainable programs use gap analysis; and
- Audit checklists will be your best friend.
Beyond these tips, here’s how to implement a sustainable SMS program.
Acquire Upper Management Support
Here’s a scenario we have seen over and over again. Charismatic safety manager, pushing the SMS program hard. SMS Implementation reaches deadlines. Eventually it is fully implemented. This is great news.
Fast forward 6 months, the safety manager has left the company. A new safety manager takes over the reins. The original manager didn’t have upper management support. So now when the new manager wants to completely overhaul the safety program, nobody stops him. Upper management may even encourage it. This SMS program is now rebooting at ground zero, phase 1 of SMS implementation.
In the same vein, similar scenarios are:
- The safety manager leaves the company;
- Upper management and the safety manager have open conflict about direction of the SMS program;
- Upper management does not drive the kind of top-down safety culture needed for safety performance that exists operations (and not just on paper).
The fact is that first and foremost, sustainable safety management systems always have upper management support. Upper management is ultimately responsible for the safety program, and resources distributes, and without their backing the SMS program is always at risk of completely falling apart.
Know Your SMS Implementation Strategy
There isn’t just one implementation strategy. There are several effective strategies for implementing SMS programs. These approaches are:
- Quantitative approach: always implement documentation by deadlines, even if actual performance isn’t quite there yet (i.e., documentation is a bit higher priority than culture);
- Qualitative approach: always implement the SMS program at the actual rate of performance in operations, so that documentation closely matches real life (i.e., safety culture is higher priority than documentation); and
- Rapid approach: implement SMS bureaucracy as quickly as possible, regardless of whether actual safety performance has changed at all (i.e., worry about documentation first, then focus on safety culture).
Most companies we see generally take the quantitative approach. These organization realize the value of developing safety culture during implementation, but view reaching deadlines as the highest priority. Qualitative approaches are relatively less common, as they take longer, but they are the most honest approach.
Rapid approaches are common as well as many programs want to say they’ve “made it,” but there are many pitfalls in doing this such as audit findings.
Be Realistic: Know SMS Implementation Myths
Another major pitfall during SMS implementation is having the wrong expectations about implementation. Wrong expectations result in a false sense of security. Some of these myths are:
- Implementation will improve actual safety performance;
- Safety manager owns the risk management program; and
- Employees will be receptive of the SMS program.
These above points can be true, but little in life is handed to us on a silver platter – the above points included. Safety performance and getting employees comfortable with safety changes are two things that safety managers have to work extremely hard to make happen.
Moreover, they really aren’t part of SMS implementation. When safety managers think that they are included in the SMS implementation package, they don’t work on achieving them. Guess what, when the safety manager leaves the safety program barely better than it was when he/she started implementation.
How to Set Realistic Deadlines
Where many programs run into problems is not setting realistic deadlines. This is a problem because:
- Creates pressure to conform to standards that aren’t feasible;
- Looks bad to be constantly late on progress;
- Tendency is to widen the gap between documentation and real performance by forcing the deadline.
Pressure and widening gaps are recipes for a program that will implode. If this sounds familiar, it’s never to late to re-define your deadlines. Setting realistic deadlines is about:
- Marking down the date you anticipate an element of the SMS will be implemented by; and
- Then adding 33% to 50% more time.
The point here is that almost everything in life takes a lot longer than you think it will. If you think phase 2 of SMS implementation will take 12 months, set a deadline of 16-18 months. It will give you breathing room to do a proper implementation, and if you are hitting your anticipated dates then it looks like you are well ahead of schedule.
Auditors like that kind of thing. Moreover, you rest assured that your implementation has a solid foundation that will outlive our stay with the company.
Final Thought: Ongoing Inspections on Operations vs Documentation
Regardless of which approach you use, it’s extremely important to be constantly inspecting real operational environments to assess how they stand against implementation documentation. This is to ensure that you either:
- Are ensuring that real operations and documentation match; or
- Are aware of how big the “gap” between the two are.
A great way to measure the sustainability of your SMS program is to understand where it fails. Here's a cutting edge risk management tool that addresses where SMS programs fail during safety incidents. It's the only risk management tool of its kind.